A new generation of Black male athletes are pushing the boundaries of men’s beauty through one trend: nail art. Worn during competition as a way to boost confidence and as a mode of self-expression, young athletes are breaking gender norms whether or not that may be their initial goal.

Caleb Williams, the former quarterback for USC who the Chicago Bears recently drafted, went viral for wearing polish in 2022. The athlete drew criticism for writing messages targeting his opponents on his nails. The style wasn’t anything new for Williams, who started the gameday tradition during his high school senior year.

“I’ve been doing it before college, but it took everybody by surprise, just because you don’t always see male athletes who play football paint their nails,” Williams told People. “But I think it’s just another way of expression.”

He also shared that his mother is a nail technician and that beauty has always been an environment he has been in.

“I don’t really care what people have to say about it,” he told USC Athletics in a 2022 interview.

“You gotta keep your hands fresh. This is where all the gold comes from,” he also told The Guardian.

Other athletes have successfully monetized the attention received for painting their nails. Jared McCain, a guard for the Duke Blue Devils, recently signed a NIL deal with the beauty brand Sally Hansen, known for selling nail products.

“One of the reasons why I kept painting my nails is I had a game after I painted my nails, and I ended up playing really well,” the 20-year-old said on TikTok. “I’m not crazy superstitious, but if I thought it looked nice, I thought it helped me play better, and so far it’s worked. So I’ma just keep doing it I guess.”

McCain received a slew of hateful comments after he was seen sporting painted nails on the court. He asserted that it is a way of expressing himself that he will not walk away from because of negative comments.

“I’ve always been big on just being yourself in any situation possible,” he told Complex. “And never letting somebody tell you what, what you can and can’t be. So doing the painted nails is kind of a part of me now. I just kind of do it whether I get to hate or not.”

“The hate is funny because it’s usually grown men most of the time and it’s like you’re a grown man just hating on a kid,” he added. “It doesn’t affect me at all. I kind of just laugh at it.”


Y’all have been asking. @Sally Hansen is the GOAT 🐐! There’s no better nail polish in the game 💅💅 #SallyHansenPartner

♬ original sound – Jaredmccain24

For some athletes, nail art is a way of making cultural references while competing for a confidence boost. The Olympian and track star Noah Lyles has worn his love for Naruto on his fingertips. He made a niche reference to the Japanese anime series during the World Indoor Championships last March, as well as during the 2023 World Championships.

“I’ve kind of wanted to do designs with my nails for a long time, but I’ve never really got into it. Finally, my girlfriend was like: You just need to do it for Worlds,” the athlete told GQ Sports in 2023.

Lyles relies on his 17-year-old nail technician in Clermont, Florida, for unique customized designs. He said he was inspired by Jaden Smith and Tyler, the Creator to paint his nails as another way of expressing himself under the same guise as hairstyling or fashion.


Noah Lyles paid tribute to his love of anime at the #WorldIndoorChamps in a unique way. 🔥 #anime #trackandfield #noahlyles #nailart

♬ original sound – NBC Olympics & Paralympics

Although male entertainers have popularized nail art, one athlete in particular helped push the boundaries of fashion in sports. Dennis Rodman broke gender norms through fashion and beauty in the 1990s, both on and off the court. He wore bedazzled crop tops during public appearances, dyed his hair green or cheetah print for games and even wore a wedding dress during a signing of his autobiography in 1996.

Rodman said he started going to gay clubs and drag shows while playing for the San Antonio Spurs, which helped him gain the confidence to experiment with his style.

The NBA star said growing up in a female-driven household normalized women’s clothing for him and that it allowed him to boost his confidence.

“I didn’t have no brothers. No father. I hung out with my sisters all the time, and they was just trying to make me dress up,” he told GQ in 2021. “We all had fun at the time, but that didn’t inspire me when I got older. I guess it kind of made me have a sense of awareness of, like, man, I used to dress like this as a kid. Wearing a dress made me feel good. You know?”